When we were little we had two pet tortoises called Peter Petra and Micky. Every autumn we’d help our parents fill two cardboard boxes with straw and we’d put one tortoise in each. Cosy and warm, they’d hibernate until the following spring when they’d resurface to enjoy the sunshine.
How I’ve longed to be a tortoise this winter! Halfway through February and we’ve just managed to get out walking for the second time this year. When we returned from four glorious days’ hiking on Gower over Christmas little did we know that our rucksacks wouldn’t see the light of day for the next six weeks.
The relentless rain and winds has destroyed the lives of so many, with homes, businesses and local beauty spots under water for weeks. Hiking has been off the agenda because footpaths and fields are too sodden to walk through, mountain streams are dangerous to cross and high winds pose a risk to life and limb. Anyone with a modicum of self preservation simply chooses to stay at home, which is sensible but oh so boring when the days become weeks and the weeks become months.
I know I shouldn’t be complaining when the worst weather ‘disaster’ we’ve personally experienced is a flooded bathroom floor caused by almost horizontal rain seeping in through the window. Like most people, we didn’t consider the potential flood risk when we bought our house but, by a stroke of fate, we chose well. The nearest river – the Ebbw – is about half a mile from our village and would need to rise dramatically and flood an uphill field before it ever became a risk. I believe we’re safe for the next few decades. The playing fields which lie alongside the river at Rogerstone Welfare Grounds have been transformed into a rather large duck pond (though the cause is the endless rain rather than the river bursting its banks).
It’s all rather reminiscent of the foot and mouth crisis back in 2001 when Tony Blair famously declared that Britain’s countryside was open for business. Things felt rather differently on the ground. We visited the Brecon Mountain Railway and were forced to eat our picnic sitting on the hard ground of the car park…. every little piece of grass or vegetation was barricaded, out of bounds, DANGEROUS.
Of course, the rain will eventually ease and the countryside will dry out but for outdoor lovers like Harri and me, 2014 will always be remembered as the winter we stopped hiking.
It was in this non-hiking frame of mind that I arranged to run a nice flat ten miles with club mates on Sunday morning (in preparation for the Newport Half Marathon on March 2) despite the fact that it was Harri’s weekend off. And wouldn’t you just know it… the rain clouds trotted off and the sun finally decided to put in an appearance.
So… having moaned for weeks about our lack of walking, I felt obliged to do both – run and walk. It’s actually not too bad that way around as the run gets your legs warmed up and your adrenaline raging; it’s much more difficult the other way round, i.e. to go out walking and then go to a training session (even when it’s been an easy walk).
Harri decided we’d stay local and short so we drove up to Machen and followed the Machen Forge Trail, which is just under three miles and mostly quite easy walking (there is one steep field). Machen’s just up the road from Rhiwderin and while it used to be an industrial valleys town, it’s fast becoming a trendy place to live (its proximity to Cardiff via the A468 probably helps).
What I particularly like about Machen (and, in fact, the whole Rhymney Valley) is that it doesn’t feel dominated by the surrounding mountains like some of the South Wales Valleys towns. It’s light and airy, with houses running alongside the river and up the hillside and while evidence of its industrial past remain, the town feels modern and forward-looking.
The Machen Forge Trail, of course, celebrates everything that is not modern. The beginning of the walk follows the riverbank and passes Green Row, now a row of attractive terraced houses but once a long dormitory for the ‘sinkers’ who travelled the country digging the pits prior to mining. On the opposite riverbank, long gardens run down to the river’s edge Thames-valley style, but here there was no flooding.
Sadly, nothing remains of Machen Forge except the stables, which couldn’t have been very impressive because we didn’t notice them and thus didn’t take any photographs.
What is impressive though is the old viaduct under which the trail passes. We’ve walked in this area before in the summer when there’s been Himalayan Balsam sprouting in every direction. In February, it was just the early catkins that were growing and so we had an unfettered view of the viaduct, a spectacular reminder of Machen’s former industrial significance.
Having led us in a big loop under and around the viaduct, the trail then ascended to the old railway line, which itself was built on an existing tramline. Nothing remains of either but it’s a pleasant walk through the trees, with a small stream running to the left and (flooded) fields on the right.
We left the old railway and headed through fields (interestingly you can still make out the line of the old tramway) to Waterloo. Last time we visited this pretty little village, it felt secluded and pretty; now, property developers have moved in and huge new builds dominate the landscape.
As we were walking through the village, an old red telephone box caused us some bafflement. The sign outside proclaimed ‘DWR Infobox’ but that didn’t make much sense to Welsh speaker Harri (the word ‘dŵr’ means ‘water’). Curious, I opened the door and found a boxful of newsletters published by the local district council. Suddenly it made sense; no longer needed as a phone box, the water-tight structure had taken on a new lease of life as an information (there were some notices stuck to the non-glass wall) and distribution point for Draethen, Waterloo and Rudry Community Council. What a wonderful idea.
The final section of the Machen Forge Trail was mostly downhill and offered magnificent views back towards Machen and the mountains beyond.
Not the toughest walk we’ve tackled (probably one of the easiest) but it was good to finally get our hiking boots on again.